Wendy Doniger - Alternate History or Altering the History?

Alternative History

by Jayaram V

This page is dedicated to expose the distortions in the works of Wendy Doniger, who is currently serving as the Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She has written a number of controversial books about Hinduism. I will pick up passages from her books and then do fact check. This page will be updated from time to time with passages from the book.

Wendy Doniger and her methodology: According to the book, the Hindu, an alternate history, Wendy Doniger holds two doctorates in Sanskrit and India Studies, from Harvard and Oxford. She claims to have translated several Sanskrit texts. Although she made a career out of Hinduism, she has little respect for it. She has no problem trashing Hindu gods and goddesses using her wild theories of Freud, which are themselves not universally accepted. She has certainly earned the attention of Hindu baiters, secularists, leftists, and other Hindu critics, by her radical approach to psychoanalyze Hindu texts. She writes about Hinduism without practicing the religion and without having proper understanding of its culture and ethos. Her approach is to formulate a theory and then look for evidence in the scriptures or elsewhere. The usual approach should be to draw conclusions after studying the scriptures, but Wendy Doniger does the opposite. If no evidence is found, she will not drop the theory but create it in the name of psychoanalysis by stretching the symbolism to suit her arguments. To all those Hindus who believe in her, here is an alternate description of Wendy Doniger: A self-serving academician who projects her own ideas into Hindu texts and uses them to formulate theories that degrade Hinduism. Anna Freud (1895-1982), the daughter of Sigmund Freud listed it as one of the ten Defense Mechanisms (or mental manipulations) in her classic (1936), the Ego and the Mechanisms of the Defense.


In the book the Hindus, An Alternate History, Wendy Doniger writes the following about the horse. "Because horses are not native to India and do not thrive there (note the present tense), they must be constantly imported, generally from western and Central Asia. The reasons for this still prevail (note the present tense):climate and pasture. The violent contrast between the hot season and the monsoon makes the soil ricochet between swampy in one season and hard, parched, and cracked in another." (Note an area half the size of Europe has been converted into a single climatic zone. Ancient India stretched from central Asia to Sri Lanka, with varied climatic zones. Wendy presents maps at the beginning of her book but forgets about them while drawing her conclusions). The grazing season lasts only from September to May (that is eight months and longer than many western countries), and even then the grasses are spare and not good for fodder (obliviously Wendy Doniger forgot about the millions of cattle that thrive in India. Probably she thinks they all live on the roads). Moreover, since the best soil is mostly reserved for cultivation of grains and vegetables to feed a large and vegetarian population, there is relatively little room for horses even in those places where more nutritious fodder grasses are found." (The comments in the brackets are mine.)

In the subsequent explanatory notes she contradicts her whole hypothesis stating that in the arid zone in the north and northwest of India, particularly in Rajasthan, horses have been bred successfully for centuries. What she fails to mention is that climate in many parts of India is much better than that in Rajasthan (which has the only desert in the country) and more conducive to pasturing and breeding cattle and horses. Then Wendy goes on to explain how the climate and lack of fodder and exercise they could not develop strength and fitness. Therefore, she says that India always imported horses and since they were imported they became prized animals, used only by elite or military circles. She then goes on to theorize how this lack of horses resulted in the "idealization of horses" in religion and art.

The truth: Wendy Doniger postulates a theory based upon her questionable research methods and then looks for evidence. She does not by habit gather information to arrive at logical conclusions. She formulates a mental picture of what could have happened in her imagination and then searches the texts to support that imagination of her. Hence her book on the history of Hindus is full of distortions and misinterpretations. In this particular case Wendy should have done some study to know whether there was any evidence at all to suggest that horses were brought by Aryans into India. The evidence of horse in the Aryan invasion theory itself is debunked and so also the theory that Indians came to know about horses only through the Aryans. Indians had knowledge of horses for a long time. There were plenty of horses in ancient India. Indian kings maintained huger armies and cavalry. Chandragupta Maurya had a large cavalry and so also many kings both in the northern and southern India. Ancient Indians might have used a few select foreign horses for breeding, but it is absurd to believe that they imported all horses from outside because the climate was not suitable. Indian civilization in those days included Taxila and Gandhara region, which had cold climate and green pastures. Considering the costs, the terrain and the climate it was not even commercially viable to import all horses. According to the gazette notification by the Government of India, as of date India is home to five native breeds of horses, namely Marwari, Kathiyawari, Manipuri, Spiti and Zanskari. Wendy does not mention this because it will not help her cause.

She also betrays in her writings her lack of sense of time. In the narrative she moves back and forth and covers hundreds of years in one sweep, often forgetting in which timeframe she stands. The Indian population in 500 BC would have been hardly two or three million people (I am probably overstating) and they lived in an area that was two thirds the size of Europe (minus Russia)!. If she is talking about today's India, again she is wrong. People do cultivate wheat and rice, not because they are vegetarians but as in any other country they need carbohydrates. They harvest the crops to collect both grains and hay, which is used as fodder. This is an ancient practice, which every Indian who hails from a farmer's family knows. People keep the hay stored in large stacks in open areas and use them for fodder during the entire year. They even trade in it during the harvest season to recover their farming costs. Since earliest times, India has large open areas where cattle could graze. In fact, India being a tropical country with rich soil and good rainfall has been a fertile ground since ancient times for better grazing lands to cattle than Europe.

The theory that horses could not be bred in India because of lack of fodder is another distortion Wendy weaves into her narrative to support her imaginative theory that Indians held horses in great esteem because they were rare. Horses are held in great esteem not because they were rare but because they played a key role in the wars and symbolized power, status, grace and speed. They were held in esteem by many civilizations, not Hindus alone. The word Horse itself may be a Sanskrit derivate (asva). India had rich pasture lands that could support millions of cattle even in ancient times. (The current cattle population of India is about 600 million). In fact the Vedic people owned individually hundreds and often thousands of cattle, which they sometimes received as gifts or gave away as gifts. It is mentioned even in the Upanishads. Besides the domestic animals, India had a very diverse range of wildlife including elephants, deer, and wild boars. Therefore, it is stretching an argument to suggest that Indian could not breed horses in the subcontinent because there was not enough fodder for them. She also conveniently ignores the fact that India is home to wild asses and donkey for thousands of years and the Indian forests were rich enough to support one of the largest elephant populations in the world. The kings maintained large number of elephants in the royal stables and regularly fed them. Megasthanese mentioned in detail how the king's men captured the elephants and trained them. When Alexander came to India, his army was afraid of facing Indian armies because of elephants. The question is if the kings had no problem feeding a large of number of elephants on a daily basis, how can Wendy Doniger argue that horses had to be imported because there were not enough grazing grounds in India?

The Fish and the Flood

After explaining how the Indian subcontinent came into existence through continental shift and the possibilities of the existence of a lost continent called Lemuria, and suggesting that an event of such a magnitude might have probably left some memories in the collective consciousness of the people of the subcontinent, Wendy Doniger turns her attention to the legends associated with flood mentioned in the Hindu texts. Before going into it I want to acknowledge that she does not follow the European conventional Chronology of Hinduism but largely her own and takes it back to nearly 50000 years. She begins with an earlier version in which a small fish asks Manu to save him from a big fish who will otherwise eat him. I do not have the original text. So I am not sure whether her translation is correct. This request by the small fish, according to Wendy Doniger, reflects "an early expression of concern about animals being eaten." I believe this is purely her subjective interpretation. In that one expression I am not sure how you can interject the principle of nonviolence. Small fish being eaten by big fish is a statement of truth. You cannot draw a general conclusion from that one line in a story, based upon a subjective interpretation, without corroborative evidence from other texts. We do not even know clearly when that text was originally written and whether that particular expression belongs to prehistoric times. This is an example of sweeping generalizations, which Wendy Doniger generously makes throughout her narrative. In fact in that legend she also finds evidence of the theory of karma and compassion to animals. This is again an example of projecting her modern thoughts and values into an ancient narrative, which need not necessarily be true. She writes "The theme of 'helpful animals' who requite human kindness (think of Androcles and the lion) teaches two morals. A good deed is rewarded, and be kind (perhaps do not eat) animals. As you can understand the legend does not necessarily reflect these values and the writing does not necessarily belong to the prehistoric times. They are the author's subjective conclusions.

Wendy Doniger next turns her attention to later version of the same flood legend. While narrating the story, she writes, "At the end of Kali age, the mare who lives at the bottom of the ocean will open her mouth and a poisonous fire will burst out of her, coming out of hell; it will burn the whole universe, gods and constellations, and all. And the seven clouds of doomsday will flood the earth until everything is a single ocean." After explaining this, Wendy Doniger goes into her psychoanalysis mode. She compares the fire coming out the mare's mouth with radioactivity, nuclear fission, and calls the mare, rather lightheartedly, the submarine mare, "an atomic U-boat cruising the deep, dark waters of the unconscious." She attributes the fire to the "combined fires of sexual desire and the fire of the ascetic repression of sexual desire, or from the fury of the god Shiva when he is excluded from the sacrifice."

As you can see none of these descriptions are factual and have anything to do with the flood legend. They are purely products of her wild imagination. She even associates this story with the story of the descent of the Ganga. It is like comparing apples to oranges or drawing parallels between the history of Great Britain and the history of the USA, with no corroborating evidence whatsoever. What she fails to explain is that the mare is Prakriti in her destructive mode. In Hinduism, actions and modifications belong to the domain of Prakriti, while Isvara, or the Supreme Self, remains a passive witness. Although Shiva is the destroyer, it is His other part, Prakriti, which does that work actually. The mare may be a symbolic reference to a subterranean fire or a volcanic fire which may erupt from below the sea to end the world, in the same way volcanic eruptions might have caused the destruction of the continent of Lemuria. Wendy Doniger does mention that possibility as a passing remark. But she does not elaborate.

Treatment of Animals

In the 10th chapter titled, "Violence in the Mahabharata," Wendy Doniger makes another unusual observation that the treatment of animals in Hinduism symbolizes treatment of Pariahas. This is a great example of how Wendy Doniger's mind works without any concern for truth or logic and how she uses her interpretations to degrade Hinduism and Hindu icons. Wendy Doniger is symptomatic of the intellectual decadence that has entered the Western academia after the 2nd World War. It is clear from her writings that she is not interested in truth, but presenting Hinduism according to her theories in the name of academic research and freedom of expression. Her distaste for Hindus and Hinduism is evident in her writings and how she interprets its scriptures, values and motifs.

It is a widely accepted theory that in Hinduism lower castes were treated rather badly, but you cannot judge Hinduism solely on that one count. In treating weaker sections of people, Hindu society was not alone. Almost in every society, the poor and the weak were treated rather roughly and unjustly by the privileged sections. The Romans and the Jews who lived in Rome treated their slaves even worse. In Rome, as Annie Besant stated, the wives were treated by their master husbands on par with slaves and considered first among the slaves. To suggest that Pariahs were symbolized as animals in Hindu epics or Puranas or to say that Yudhishtira had some hidden connection with Ashoka is symptomatic of the mindset that characterizes the writings of Wendy Doniger and her entourage of research associates who contributed to her works.

Animals occupy an important place in Hindu pantheon. Hinduism is the only religion where animals and humans enjoy the same status in creation as beings caught in the cycle of births and deaths. The Vedas state that as humans are to the gods, animals are to humans. Just as gods do not want to lose humans who nourish them, humans do not like to lose animals that nourish them. Many deities of Hinduism have animals as their vehicles. Dogs are compared to the Vedas and Dharma itself. Many animals like the bull, the cow, the eagle, horse, the elephant, snakes, are worshipped in Hindu temples. Nandi, or Garuda are not mere creatures. They are considered knowledgeable scholars, liberated beings, and devotees of the masters they serve. Nandi is not an ignorant Pariah as Wendy Doniger wants us to believe but a scholar teacher who was devoted to the cause of his personal God. So is Garuda, who is depicted as a teacher in some narratives. Both have special significance in Hinduism as icons of devotion and selfless service. Now, if animals were really considered Pariahs they would not have been worshipped so highly, considered scholars or Brahmanas, held in esteem, or given so much importance in the scriptures.

Ashoka's Royal Kitchen

In the same chapter, Wendy Doniger makes another absurd and irrational conclusion about the practices in Ashoka's kitchen. She refers to an inscription of Ashoka which states that, previously thousands of animals were killed in the royal kitchen of Ashoka, but after he took to dhamma only three animals were killed. From that she draws the absurd conclusion that Ashoka was still eating meat and uses her imagination to even suggest a historical fact, "Why go on killing these three? Perhaps because the emperor was fond of roasted peacock and venison. Perhaps he was trying to cut down on meat, the way some chain smokers try to cut down on cigarettes." It is strange that she could think of only one possibility from that statement of inscription.

Ashoka was emperor of the entire Indian subcontinent and even beyond. His empire was the largest in the history of India. A king of his stature would have had a large court, entourage, queens and queen mothers, concubines, sons, cousins, ministers, daughters and their personal guards and servants. For all of them the royal kitchen might have served food daily, as was the tradition in Indian royalty in the past. King Ashoka might have permitted the killing of those three animals out of respect for any of them, not necessarily because he was still fond of eating meat. He could have allowed it out of compassion for his close relations or some favorite queen, or queen mother.

It is OK to suggest a possibility, but then to project it as the most plausible conclusion and weave an absurd theory of her own out of it without any evidence is what makes Wendy Doniger one of the questionable academicians to have every written about Hinduism. The way she writes about Hinduism reflects not her search for truth, but her intense prejudice. It even gives one the impression that she was even doing a hit job in the name of research.

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